An Anatomy of the New Nigerian Middle Class

A Sociological Analysis of the

Attitude and values of the New Nigerian Elite


Ahmed Sule, CFA

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Akeem Sule, MRCPsych

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"I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world's deepest inequities……on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but your humanity."

-Bill Gates

"I have to live for others and not for myself: that's middle-class morality."

-George Bernard Shaw

"Slums may well be breeding grounds of crime, but middle-class suburbs are incubators of apathy."

- Cyril Connolly


In most countries, the middle class plays an important role in its economic, social and political development. The middle class often acts as the backbone of society. Despite not constituting the majority in most societies, the middle class is a key contributor to better governance, economic growth and poverty reduction. The middle class segment often acts as a driving force for political change by demanding from the government better governance and provision of services.

In Nigeria, the middle class segment (Nigerian elite) is currently influencing the economic dynamics of the country. With the emergence of this new generation of middle class, the economic, cultural and political landscape of Nigeria is being transformed. Domestic demand is now on the ascendency, driven by the demand for middle class products and services, which has created vibrant industries in a range of sectors including entertainment, retail, banking and fashion, thereby opening up employment opportunities to Nigerians. Foreign investors who previously avoided Nigeria are now flocking back to the country in search of opportunities to tap into the potential demand from the Nigerian middle class.

Purpose of This Paper

Why have we decided to write this paper? What is the purpose of this paper? What do we hope to achieve? There is currently a paucity of research into the Nigerian middle class especially from the sociological perspective. Most studies have focused on the economic aspect of the middle class such as the study carried out by the National Bureau of Statistics titled "The Middle Class in Nigeria: Analysis of Profile, Determinants and Characteristics (1980-2007)". In April 2011, the African Development Bank produced a report titled "The Middle of the Pyramid: Dynamics of the Middle Class in Africa". This report made specific reference to the Nigerian middle class, however like the National Bureau of Statistic's study, it was more economic in focus.

A critical analysis of the so-called Nigerian middle class from a sociological perspective is long overdue. In this paper, we dissect the anatomy of the Nigerian middle class by analyzing its values, attitudes and behaviour. By examining the middle class from a sociological perspective, we are extending the work of the civil rights activist and sociologist Franklin Frazier, the author of the iconic book titled ‘Black Bourgeoisie'(which examined the African American middle class). Professor Franklin suggested in his book that further study may need to be carried out on the middle class in post-colonial Africa. We also hope to dispel the myth of the so-called Nigerian middle class. Another objective of this paper is to provoke debate regarding the role of the middle class in Nigeria in addition to contributing to the modification of the mentality of this elite, which appears to be oblivious to its social and moral responsibilities and duties. Finally, we hope that this paper will bring self-revelation to the Nigerian middle class.

Definition of Middle Class

Middle class is defined as individuals or households that fall between the 20th and 80th percentile of the consumption distribution or between 0.75 and 1.25 times median per capita income, respectively. The African Development Bank uses an absolute definition of per capita daily consumption of $2-$20 in 2005 PPP US dollars to characterize the middle class in Africa in the above-mentioned study. This translates to a per capita monthly consumption range of N9,090 to N90,900. Taking into consideration inflation and the pricing structure in Nigeria, we will use an absolute definition of a monthly consumption of at least N400,000 to characterize the middle class in Nigeria. We will also cover the Nigerian middle class in Diaspora.

Evolution of the Nigerian Middle Class

The new Nigerian middle class is not the first set of middle class that Nigeria has produced. During the colonial era, the Nigerian elite comprised of interpreters, chiefs in the colonial legislative councils, lawyers, doctors, judges, magistrates, top civil servants, senior army and police officers. At the dawn of independence and post independence, the elites were products of the administration and educational system set up by the colonialists. Some of these elites that came from the educational system, in the words of Kwame Nkrumah "tried to be more British than the British, and imitated the dress, manners and even voices of the British public school and Oxbridge elite". Prior to independence, foreigners controlled the mining and banking sectors, as a result, very few Nigerians were employed in these sectors. Upon independence, a new set of elite emerged when a couple of Nigerians were employed in these sectors.

The indigenization programme of the Muritala Mohammed/Obasanjo regime in addition to the oil boom ushered in a new generation of middle class Nigerians. By the 1980's, this generation of elites was financially obliterated due to the after shock of the Structural Adjustment Programme and military rule.

Since the beginning of the second millennium, a new generation of middle class Nigerians began to emerge. Democracy, globalization and technological advancement enabled Nigeria to join the global village. Foreign capital began to flow into the country, as military rule became a thing of the past. Banking and telecommunication reforms created a new generation of banks and telecommunication companies, which employed many Nigerians thereby increasing the number of middle class Nigerians.


We are conscious of the fact that the middle class is not a monolithic group. This paper represents our understanding of the middle class based on observation, discussion, interviews, and review of newspapers, blogs, television, radio and magazines. We would like to emphasis that we are examining the behaviour, attitude and values of the so-called middle class and not addressing the sampling of attributes of the Nigerian middle classes, which can be tested statistically. This is not a study to degrade the Nigerian middle class, but it is to bring self-revelation to the class. Moreover, when we refer to middle class we are NOT suggesting that everybody in this segment of the Nigerian society exhibits the traits that we identify. Finally, this study excludes the super rich who we define as those with a net worth in excess of N500 million.

Descriptive Analysis of the New Nigerian Middle Class

In this section, we examine the educational, demographic, religious, occupational and life style characteristics of the Nigerian middle class. According to the African Development Bank, the lower middle class constitutes 6.2% of the Nigerian population while the upper middle class constitutes 3.8% of the population. The average Nigerian elite is likely to have a first degree. Some have attained professional qualifications, while others have achieved additional academic qualifications such as Masters or PhD's. The Nigerian elite is likely to live in the urban areas of the country. They are situated in cities like Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano, Kaduna and other state capital and major cities in the country.

The new Nigerian middle class has emerged along with the expansion of the private sector in industries like banking, telecommunication, consulting and entertainment in addition to existing industries like the energy and manufacturing sectors. The middle class comprise of people in a range of professions including but not restricted to accounting, banking, engineering, fashion design, law, medicine and retail. While most of the people in the middle class are in salaried employment, a sizeable number of the people constituting this class are entrepreneurs. The return of Nigerians in Diaspora in search of opportunities has added to the number of the middle class resident in Nigeria. The Nigerian elite is likely to be either a Christian or Muslim and they often worship in places where other middle class people worship.

They often own durable goods such as cars and computers, are well dressed and either rent in the more expensive parts of the city or own their property.

The Talented Tenth and The Nigerian Middle Class

In September 1903, the African American civil rights activist and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois published his influential essay titled ‘The Talented Tenth'. In this essay, Du Bois argued that social change for the blacks in the then segregated America could be accomplished by developing the small group of college-educated blacks he called "the Talented Tenth". He suggested that the educated and influential among the blacks should lift up the remaining blacks. He wrote, "The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground". In a follow-up article, Du Bois argued that "the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character, not in its wealth".

We live in an unfair world and ideally those who benefit from the system should take the moral high ground and lift up those not in a position to rise up. In our society, the middle class should assume the role of the talented tenth and pull up the downtrodden up to their vantage ground.

History is full of examples of the talented tenth guiding the masses away from what Du Bois called "contamination and death". For instance, in Nigeria a middle class elite comprising of people such as Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikwe and Anthony Enaharo used their knowledge, education and wealth to lift up their fellow Nigerians from the shackles of British colonial rule. The next generation of middle class elites such as Fela Kuti, Beko Ransome Kuti, Gani Fawehinmi and Wole Soyinka used their wealth, intellect and talents to lift up their fellow Nigerians from the manacles of military dictatorship; in South Africa a middle class elite comprising of people such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Walter Sisulu used their knowledge, education and intellect to lift up their fellow South Africans from the chains of Apartheid rule; in America a middle class elite comprising of people like Martin Luther King, W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davies used their knowledge, intellect and influence to lift up their fellow Americans from the fetters of Jim Crow, segregation and racial discrimination.

A critical examination of the recent revolution that took place in Egypt and Tunisia reveals the role that the middle class played in ousting the regime of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali respectively.

The above examples demonstrate that in any society, the middle class has not only an economic role to play but also more importantly a social and moral responsibility.

Unfortunately, the present Nigerian middle class appears to be oblivious to this additional responsibility.

Myth, Overestimation and Detachment From Greater Society

Even though they constitute a small percentage of the total population, the Nigerian middle class, like Alice, live in a wonderland and are unmindful to the happenings in the rest of Nigeria. The more their wealth increases, the more detached they become. As they continue to move out of the suburbs into the middle class and richer environments, they become more detached from the sufferings of millions of Nigerians. The elites have a high estimation of themselves and see Nigeria from their own paradigm. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the social crusader captured this mentality in his song ‘Ikoyi Mentality vs. Mushin Mentality' which analysed the detachment of the elite from the masses.

The Nigerian middle class including the Nigerian Diasporan have created a myth about their economic power, yet it is still as fragile as that of the previous generation. International business media such as the Financial Times and The Economist have encouraged the hype as they are all too willing to praise the achievements of the new middle class while ignoring the plight of the downtrodden in the society. The Nigerian middle class is still made up mainly of salaried workers whose source of income is still heavily correlated with the price of oil and the economic cycle. As a consequence, there is a high risk of some members of this class falling below the middle class in the event of a significant economic shock.

Values, Attitude and Behavior

In this section, we discuss the attitudes and behavioral characteristics of the new Nigerian middle class. Six areas will be examined namely:

a) Break of culture

b) Wealth Amnesia

c) Consumerism and Increased use of debt

d) Self-centeredness and Disregard for the "Least of These"

e) Shallow Mindedness and Superficiality

f) Inferiority Complex and Egocentricity

a) Break With Culture

Like some of the early elites of the post independence earlier who often behaved ‘more British than the British', these current crops of Nigerian elites are gradually losing their Nigerian and African identity. Thanks to modern technologies such as the Internet and satellite television, which is accessible by the middle class, they now have exposure to news and trends occurring all over the world. While this is good, unfortunately, it has resulted in the development of the Anglicized Nigerian elite. This Anglicized Nigerian even though based in Nigeria has little interest in what is happening in the country. While he can tell you what is happening on the British and American news space, he has limited knowledge of the Nigerian headline news. While an elite is willing to wear the jersey of an English premiership club and can name all the teams in the English Premier League, yet she can't name a single club in the Nigerian Premier league.

Middle class parents often brag about how their children can't speak the indigenous languages such as Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba. Conversations between parents and children are now in English as our indigenous languages gradually become extinct in middle class Nigeria.

Previously held African values such as respect for the elderly are no longer observed. The children of the Nigerian elites have been accustomed to seeing their parents disparage the house help and drivers. In some instances, these children are disrespectful to the much older house help and driver.

The situation is no different for the Nigerian Middle class in Diaspora. As they attain middle class status in countries like the UK and the US, they begin to lose sense of their identity. They no longer see themselves as Nigerians, but as Brits and Americans. In order to integrate into the society, they change their Nigerian names to English names; consequently, Oluseun Adamu becomes Sean Adam, Mukaila Alani becomes Michael Alan and Anike Suleiman becomes Anne Su.

b) Amnesia

Another behavioral trait of the Nigerian middle class is wealth amnesia. From Scriptures, we learn that ‘there is nothing new under the sun'. This means that everything that is happening now has happened before. The new Nigerian elite often suffers from wealth amnesia as they behave like i) they are the first generation of middle class Nigerians ii) Nigeria never experienced a period of abundance.

They brag about shopping in the new malls while failing to realize that Nigeria once had stores like UTC, Kingsway and Leventis. They talk about Beyonce and Jay Z coming to Nigeria, while forgetting that bands like Kool and the Gang and Shalamar performed live in Nigeria. They brag about forking out thousands to watch a movie at Silverbird Galleria, while they forget that not long ago, there were cinemas all over the country.

Those that have escaped from poverty into the middle class forget about their small beginnings and talk about poor people as if they are contagious. They are always talking about the riches in the land and the opportunities to be exploited, yet they ignore the reality that millions of people are suffering without access to quality healthcare, education and food.

As explained earlier, those in Diaspora also forget where they are coming from and throw away their Nigerian identity.

c) Consumerism and Increased Use of Debt

With the emergence of the new Nigerian middle class, has come an increase in consumerism. Like their counterparts in the Western world, the Nigerian elites have started to take on more debt to support their growing consumption pattern. In the aftermath of the consolidation in the Nigerian banking sector, there was an abundance of excess liquidity. This coupled with the rising oil prices flowed in the form of loans granted to a number of middle class Nigerians. Some of these loans were in the form of consumer finance, to fund the purchase of consumer durables such as televisions and automobiles. Many of the Nigerian elites took margin loans to invest in the capital market. With the crash of the stock market, the elites ended up holding stocks that had lost as much as 80% of its market value , while still having to repay the outstanding loan amount at astronomical interest rates.

In order to ‘hang out' with fellow middle class friends, a number of people have had to take loans so as to live in expensive areas of the city. Some take loans to finance overseas travel, while others acquire designer clothes on credit, repaying the outstanding amount in installments. With the high level of leverage coupled with the increasing consumption appetite, a sizeable portion of the Nigerian middle class is living on the edge. Since most are salaried workers, they could face a financial tsunami in the event that they lose their jobs.

The situation is no different for the Nigerian middle class based in the Diaspora. A number of them have taken large mortgage loans so as to live in expensive neighborhoods closer to the whites and as far as possible from their fellow Nigerians. Coupled with the increase in consumption for wasting assets, these groups of people are also in a vulnerable position especially in light of the global economic crisis.

d) Self-centeredness and Disregard for the "Least of These"

During Jesus life on earth, he was very concerned with the plight of the people on the margin of society. These were the people that Jesus spent a considerable amount of his time with. In describing these people, Jesus used a very deep term named the "least of these". On the contrary, with the emergence of the new Nigerian middle class has come a disregard for the ‘least of these' . Besides the disregard for the people at the margin of society, the elites also exhibit a high degree of self-centeredness.

Unlike the ‘dawn of independence elite' that identified with the struggle of the masses, the new Nigerian elite is more satisfied with self. As millions of Nigerians wallow in poverty, these elites believe that they are entitled to the ‘milk and honey' of the land due to their hard work, intellect, academic qualifications and connections. Rather than use their wealth, influence and intellect for the benefit of the masses, they only use it to achieve their selfish goals. This sense of entitlement has often resulted in these elites regarding the poor as lazy and deserving of their misfortune. They believe that the poor choose to be poor and if they would just be hardworking, then they would join the so-called middle class.

The Nigerian middle class chooses to ignore the widening gap between the ‘haves' and the ‘haves not'. For the elite it is often about me, myself and I. In their dealing with the poor and less fortunate, they substitute what Martin Luther King calls the "I-thou" relationship for the "I-it" relationship in which the poor are relegated to the status of things. They come across as not only self-centered, but also self-seeking, self-conceited and self-important.

A classic example of this mindset was revealed when Farouk Abdul Mutallab was arrested over an attempted terror attack on a US airliner on Christmas Day of 2009. Rather than being bothered about the implication of Mutallab's action on Nigeria's reputation , safety and international relations, a number of members of the so-called Nigerian elite were more concerned about the possibility of Western countries refusing to grant visas to Nigerians.

Another recent example of the self-centeredness of the Nigerian elite occurred during the "Youth Lunch with Jonathan". As part of the pre-inauguration programme of the newly elected President of Nigeria, Jonathan Goodluck set up a forum to engage with the Nigerian youth to discuss and debate on issues pertaining to the Nigerian youths. Invitations were sent to the ‘Talented Tenth' who were supposed to voice the cries and concerns of the masses to the newly elected president. Rather than utilize the opportunity to challenge the president to make good his promises, majority of these so-called middle class youths chose to remain silent thereby confirming what Martin Luther King said many years ago: "The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people". A few Uncle Tom's and Aunty Jemima's even decided to shower praise on the elected president rather than address the real issues. Although a couple of these elite youths challenged the president; while they were standing on the wilderness of concern, their lone voices were drowned by the silence of the majority of so-called middle class youths sitting on the mountain of apathy.

The Nigerian middle class in Diaspora also exhibits the same self-centeredness and lack of concern for the unfortunate.

They fail to be concerned about the fate of the millions of Nigerians and other people at the bottom of the rung of the social ladder, instead, they are satisfied being the token person at the top of the ladder. They look down on the less unfortunate as inferior who have failed to seize the opportunities available in the land. For those based in the UK, they often look down on the Afro-Caribbean's as lazy; those based in the USA often look down on their African American brothers who they view as criminals and lacking in ambition; those in South Africa often fail to appreciate the challenges of the black South Africans who are just beginning to recover from the tragic Apartheid policies. These Nigerian Diasporan elites, turn a blind eye to racism, tokenism and classism.

Those that go back to Nigeria often have one major objective in mind: to make as much money as possible with no regard to making Nigeria a better place for all. It is this motivation for quick wealth that has often resulted in situations whereby the elites go back to Nigeria and get involved in corrupt activities all in the name of making a ‘quick buck'.

Unlike the earlier generation of Nigerian Diasporan elites who united with their African brothers and sisters to fight racism and colonialism, this current set of elites are just satisfied with three things - SELF SELF SELF.

e) Shallow Mindedness and Superficiality

Unlike their Western middle class counterparts, the Nigerian elite demonstrates a high degree of superficiality and shallow mindedness. This could be born out of the inability of the Nigerian elite to develop the mind. While the middle class in developed societies are respected for their ability to apply their wealth, intellect or influence to solve the societies pressing problems, our so-called elites are recognized by the size of the wheels of their cars, the index of their salaries, the number of digits on their bank statement and the label of the clothes they wear. A doctor, accountant or engineer who has excelled in her field of endeavor is not respected for her contribution to her field but is respected for her flamboyance, wealth or fame. This results in a situation whereby middle class professionals are pre-occupied with appearing on Ben TV or adorning the front cover of Ovation magazine, rather than sitting down to think about solving the many problems confronting our great country.

As a consequence of their shallow-mindedness, the Nigerian middle class focuses on the monetary and materialistic aspect of live while disregarding the intellectual, spiritual and human aspect of live. An elite may have the money to visit the great cities of the world such as New York , London and Calabar, but she is incapable of appreciating a stroll along Centre Park, a jog around Regent park and the stillness and artifacts of the Calabar museum; he may buy his children the best clothes and gadgets, buy them first class plane tickets to tour the world, but he is incapable of spending time with them, showing them affection and teaching them values and wisdom to make them men and women of integrity; he may send his wife to Dubai, Paris and Milan for shopping, but is incapable of giving her love, affection and attention.

The Nigerian elite is very class and money conscious and finds it difficult to hold a normal conversation without making reference to money and riches. For them Psalm 23 is rephrased to:

The Naira is my shepherd,

I shall not want. It makes me to be happy and

leads me to sleep in hotels in Dubai, London and New York.

It restores my bank account, dignity and connections.

It guides me in the path of selfishness, vanity and ignorance.

The Nigerian elite in Diaspora exhibits the same form of superficiality when he feels that because he has a well paying job in the Western world and has achieved middle class status, he is superior to the people based in Nigeria. Another example of this mindset is shown when these elites feel comfortable being the token black in their offices or on their street. They feel proud to say " I am the only black person in my office" or "I am the only black lady on my street as all my neighbours are whites".

f) Inferiority Complex and Egocentricity

The Nigerian elite lives in a bubble and has an oversized ego. However a critical examination behind this ego would reveal a high degree of inferiority complex. Evidence of this inferiority complex is manifested in several traits such as: the need to always ‘keep up with the joneses' and the quest for status and recognition.

They often build their life around their role, their job, their houses, their cars, their looks and other material possessions. The risk with this approach to life is that in the event of any change in fortune, there is a high risk of them losing their sense of worth. This inferiority complex has resulted in many people using their limited earnings to maintain a standard of living that enables them to hang out with the ‘Joneses'. This leads people to move into expensive neighbourhoods, ride expensive cars and wear expensive clothes, which they can't afford in order to be seen by others as wealthy. They believe that once they are seen with these possessions, it will encourage other wealthy people to associate with them.

In order to ‘belong', they wear their best clothes to go shopping in places like The Palm Mall (Shoprite) so as to be seen with other ‘Joneses'. A place like Shoprite, which is just a shopping mall, has now become a melting pot for the so-called Nigerian elite to display their latest clothes, hairstyle and cars.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Having explored the evolution, characteristics and behavioral traits of the new Nigerian middle class, the next question to ask is where do we go from here?

On the economic front, the Nigerian middle class must shift from a ‘consuming middle class' to a ‘producing middle class'. Any society built on a consumerism culture, especially a debt fueled consuming culture is a society ripe for an economic disaster as can be seen from the recent Global Financial Crisis.

The Nigerian middle class must not only embrace its economic role in the society, but should also embrace its moral and social responsibilities. With tens of millions of Nigerians living below the poverty line without access to quality healthcare, quality education and quality justice, the Talented Tenth should use their intellect, wealth and education to lift up the ‘least of these'.

We should learn to be our brothers and sisters keeper, because what affects them affects us. Afterall, Martin Luther King was right when he said "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be." ; Obama was right when he said "if any child goes hungry, that matters to me, even if she's not my child. If any family is devastated by disease, then I cannot be content with my own good health. If anyone is persecuted because of how they look, or what they believe, then that diminishes my freedom and threatens my rights as well." ; Jesus was right when he said "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."


It is time for the new Nigerian middle class to wake up and build a legacy that will outlive and outgrow this generation. How does this generation of Nigerian middle class want to be remembered in future? Does it want to be remembered as the generation of middle class that used its wealth, intellect and education to tear down the walls of poverty, disease and injustice that inflicted a generation of Nigerians? Does it want to be remembered as the generation of middle class that the Master spoke about when he said "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."? Does it want to be remembered as the generation of middle class that led the fight against oppression, exploitation and classism?


Would it rather be remembered as that shallow-minded, self–centered and egocentric generation of elites whose vanity, apathy and indifference allowed oppression to continue in the land? Would it rather be remembered as that generation of elites that Jesus referred to when he said "for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me'? Would it rather be remembered as that generation of elites whose first name was ‘ME', middle name was ‘MYSELF' and surname was ‘MINE'?

The choice is yours and history is watching.


Ahmed Sule, CFA Dr. Akeem Sule

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Ahmed Sule and Akeem Sule are siblings.